Thoughts on Subspecies?

Hello out there fellow naturalists!
I’ve recently joined iNaturalist and gotten very excited to have an outlet to share my wildlife photos and my zoology knowledge. As a great big animal nerd and wildlife enthusiast, I find it interesting to learn about the different individual subspecies that are spread out across North America within one species. Particularly, living in Utah, we have Rocky Mountain Mule Deer and Mountain Coyote. I am finding though, that when I post these identifications on my observations, they are pretty quickly shot down with the suggestion of the greater species as a whole. i.e. my North American Osprey has become just Osprey, my Mountain Coyotes just Coyote.
Looking over other topics on the forum on this subject, it appears there’s some debate and even anger(?) about whether or not to include subspecies. I’m personally all about accuracy. I think it’s quite fun and interesting to narrow a species down to its subspecies via range (understandably not always possible through appearance), though if the general consensus is that no, just put species, I don’t want to have constant back-and-forth battles on my observations about subspecies, and I’ll give in to the greater species suggestion.
It just seems a little strange to say “This is a Mountain Coyote” and have someone come along and say “No, it’s a coyote”. Both are be true, so I’m not sure how exactly to handle this.
Note that I am all about Mammals and Birds, my knowledge moving through reptiles, fish, plants and amphibians gets considerably muddier, moving in that order.
Apologies if this topic has been covered to some degree already. I saw some discussion but it seemed more specified about reptiles or about different species in one Genus, etc.


You should ask iders hy they denied ssp. id (I checked and it was a disagreement, so ider thought it is not a mountain coyote), adding suspecies is a personal choice and nobody can tell you not to add one, but morphology better be seen in the photo, so it’s not just range-based guess.

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Here is a thread that addresses mammals. Given the shaky standing of most subspecies, I think IDs should be supported with as much evidence as possible: morphology, habitat, behavior, range, etc. Relying on just one can be problematic. But maybe it doesn’t matter if they probably aren’t valid taxa anyway; if the name’s in the system, why not use it…

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Looking into it a bit more, I think part of the problem is the way iNaturalist records observations by location? Subspecies observations are not included under the larger umbrella of species. So if I ID my coyote as ‘mountain coyote’, it doesn’t show up with the other coyote observations, which I feel is a flaw in the system. If I’m looking at this right, anyway.
Other possibility is that not everyone is interested in looking into subspecies like I am, and doesn’t understand that no, I’m not saying this isn’t ALSO a coyote.

In a lot of cases (such as North American Osprey), morphology isn’t necessarily evident. It’s the North American Osprey because it was observed in North America, rather than Europe or Asia. I feel that’s pretty obvious. Many subspecies come down to just range. There is different morphology for the different subspecies of coyote, but generally only noticeable if you were to put two individuals of different subspecies side by side for comparison (mountain coyote is smaller and paler than Eastern coyote, etc), so it mostly comes down to range.


Apologies, there’s apparently no way to reply to two people in one post, but my previous post was a reply to you as well. :sweat_smile:

Since other people have already elegantly pointed out what I was going to say, I will say that some subspecies are important for conservations purposes, such as Painted Turtles (although, the number of subspecies for Chrysemys picta on iNaturalist seems to have changed from four to three). Also, sometimes a subspecies almost occupies an entire island or continent, so it may seem redundant to always identify it to subspecies. One such example is the North American Peppered Moth - Biston betularia cognataria.

Ssp. observations of course are shown with other observations, it’s just the map shows you only ssp. when you open ssp. observation.

No, nobody think that, they’re just disagreeing with id or think it’s impossible to id ssp.

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Okay then that was just my misunderstanding looking at the map. In which case, why knock down the subspecies to just overall species? I don’t quite understand.

I’m not sure if I should just give in or stand my ground that yes, this is in fact a mountain coyote.

Ask ider, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think ssp. is idable from your observation, but we can’t answer for another person and I have no idea about coyote types.


All right, so when you suggest asking the IDer, do you mean msg them directly or just comment on the observation? I’m still a relative newbie here, still figuring out how everything works.


There might be a few reasons to this. Sometimes the IDer is simply amateur/uncertain and does not know how to distinguish between the sub-species (yet knows for certain it is that particular species). At other times, the sub-species claim might be uncertain (e.g. inconclusive/lack of evidence to distinguish the sub-species). However, the concept of sub-species has always been debated, as they can provide useful information on certain sub-population or those with genetically unique enough to have the potential to be elevated into a species in the future. But since the definition is so ill-defined, it may be difficult for researchers to keep track on them (e.g. whether to separate them into 2, 3, or 4 sub-species, etc.) and many sub-species descriptions were derived from before genetic methods were popularised (so may not be genetically distinct afterall).

I don’t know much about the sub-species for coyotes, but definitely tag/message the IDers and ask about their IDs :)

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Add a comment under observation with user tag asking them why they added disagreeing id.


Oh I see, thank you for the help!

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From what I saw, the IDer for some of your observations didn’t disagree with your sub-species ID, but rather they know the species, but just uncertain about sub-species level. You can check this when you’re on iNaturalist website.

For example, this one simply agrees with the species, but uncertain about sub-species

And this one is a total disagreement about the sub-species ID

Hope this helps! :)


I guess I have yet to figure out how you outright disagree with someone on a suggested species ID and was unaware of the difference. Still figuring things out.

When you add a higher-level taxon than current community taxon you are asked if it’s a disagreement or you just don’t know better.

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I see. I haven’t done that so haven’t run into that option. It seemed redundant or unnecessary to go UP on the taxonomic tree rather than narrowing it down. Thank you for the clarification.

This can refine the community taxon even if it doesn’t change the observation taxon. But with subspecies this can be helpful in changing the observation taxon because stuff gets weird with subspecies IDs (which is maybe another reason to avoid them).


The classic definition of subspecies (by Mayr) is " an aggregate of phenotypically similar populations of a species inhabiting a geographic subdivision of the range of that species". By that definition, I would think that no one should be disagreeing with a subspecies identification unless the geographic location of the observation isn’t made public or that the location doesn’t fit within the range of the subspecies. One should not disagree just because one doesn’t like the idea of subspecies.


There’s lots of arguments for and against this.

One other potential thing to consider: if IDing only to subspecies based solely on location of the observation, one isn’t really adding any information to the observation. If someone wanted to figure out the subspecies, they could always just look at the location. In situations like these, I don’t think it’s really worth it to ID to subspecies and, on rare occasions where there might be a long distance migrant, etc., IDing to subspecies based solely on location could even lead to an erroneous ID.

In cases where there are >1 subspecies present in an area, and an observation is IDable to one of them, then adding that ID definitely could be valuable, and I think it’s worth it do so in those cases.

More broadly, the implementation of subspecies is plagued by poorly defined groups and the concept often doesn’t have that much scientific value in my opinion.